Every Disney fan knows that there’s always more to see, more to read, and more to learn about Disney and the fascinating person behind the name, myth, and maker of the magic: Walt Disney! So sharpen your Number Two pencil and get out your college-ruled paper because class is about to begin at Walt Disney’s College of Knowledge!
Walt loved skating, skiing, and winter sports.
In January of 1935, the Los Angeles Herald Examiner carried coverage of Hollywood’s favorite “cartoonist,” Walt Disney, and his wife, Lillian, on vacation at Ahwanee Hotel in Yosemite National Park, California. “Movie producer Walt Disney and his wife found the winter sports in Yosemite decidedly to their liking,” the Herald reported, “It was the Disney family’s first experience with winter sports, and they were learning to figure skate before they left Yosemite Valley. Ski-joring [a winter sport where a person on skis is pulled by a horse, a dog (or dog team) or a motor vehicle] was another favorite pastime. The Disneys spent the New Year with Dr. and Mrs. Hartley Dewey, Yosemite, and the rest of the week at The Ahwahnee Hotel.”
This hobby made its way into Walt’s movies.
Walt had put Oswald the Lucky Rabbit on skates in the 1928 short Sleigh Bells, and would strap them on Mickey and Minnie in the short On Ice later in 1935. Winter sports (and Walt and Lilly’s ongoing love of skating and skiing) figured in beloved animation in such films as The Hockey Champ (1939), The Art of Skiing (1941), Bambi (1942), Hockey Homicide (1945), and the “Once Upon a Wintertime” segment of Melody Time (1948).
The characters stepped off the screen and onto the ice.
But the Disney characters stepped into the rink “live and in person” in the late 1940s, with the premiere appearance of “Walt Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” in the 1949 edition of the beloved touring ice show, the Ice Capades.
Ice Capades was founded in 1940 in Hershey, Pennsylvania, by nine men who owned regional arenas. They developed the “live spectacle on ice” concept based upon the popularity of the Shipstads & Johnson Ice Follies, and star screen skater Sonja Heine, in order to tour the show through their own showplaces and other similar facilities.
These touring ice shows typically featured Olympic Skating Champions, trick and stunt skaters, comic skating acts, and huge themed pageant sequences, similar to the kind of spectacles audiences of the 1920s movie palaces had become accustomed to with the stage prologues of Fanchon & Marco, Roxy Rothafel, and their contemporary theatrical showmen.
In the Ice Capades Disney sequences, elaborately-costumed skating pros performed the varied roles of the Disney characters, each played with skating skills and stunts incorporated into their character portrayal and accompanied by Disney music cues, songs, and character dialogue.
The 1950 Ice Capades featured a prominent original Disney sequence, “Walt Disney’s Toy Shop,” starring Mickey, Minnie, Donald, and Pluto, along with Dumbo and Pinocchio.
The Ice Capades 1951 edition contained a sequence called “Raggedy Rhythm,” partially based on Walt Disney’s concurrent film release of Alice In Wonderland, the 1952 tour featured Disney’s recent hit Cinderella, and Snow White made a return in the 1954 edition.
The original Disneyland characters skated into the park.
In 1955, Walt found himself in a fix. In July, he was set to open Disneyland, but something that had been a part of his thinking since his first ideas for his amusement park had been forgotten. Viewers of the TV grand opening of a Disney Park, and certainly subsequent visitors would expect to see the Disney characters, live and in person. In fact, they would want to meet the Disney characters. Hurriedly, contact was made with the Ice Capades, and on Disneyland’s opening day, Mickey, Minnie, and their friends—without their ice skates—were there to greet the Guests, and another Disney tradition was established.
Disney is still skating all over the world today!
The 1957 edition of the Ice Capades spotlighted “Disneyland” itself, and starred Mickey, Minnie, Donald, and Pluto, along with Chip and Dale, the Three Little Pigs, and Pinocchio; and set pieces including Sleeping Beauty Castle and the classic TWA Moonliner!
Disney continued to be a highlight of the Ice Capades over the next several years: 1958 saw the skated version of “The Nutcracker Suite” from Fantasia, Snow White starred again in 1959, Babes In Toyland in 1960, an anthology performance called “Disneyrama” in 1962, and a new version of Alice In Wonderland in 1966.
Like so many of the merchandise and licensing tie-ins, Walt saw these uses of his characters and properties not just as a place to create revenue, but as a means of keeping his characters in the public eye, heart, and mind.
In 1967, the Ice Capades began a long-term agreement with Hanna-Barbera cartoon studio, and Mickey and company left the ice arena, which was soon populated by The Flintstones, Yogi Bear, and Scooby-Doo and his friends. In time, the Ice Capades shows became more adult-oriented, focusing on a “showgirls and glamour” aspect more in keeping with a Las Vegas revue.
The main competition with Ice Capades over the years had been Ice Follies, which premiered in 1937. At the time that the Ice Capades began to shift more on the adult audience, Ice Follies conversely began tooling their appeal more to families, between 1974 and 1979, adding segments based on characters and music of the PBS television hit Sesame Street. In 1981, the Ice Capades launched a whole Disney-themed ice spectacle under the name “Walt Disney’s World on Ice”. In 1998, it became as it is known today: “Disney on Ice.”
President of Disney Theatrical Group Thomas Schumacher says, “Our Ice Shows and Arena Shows, created by our long-time colleagues at Feld Entertainment, are like emissaries from Disney, and help to keep our stories and characters alive and present—in person—all over the world.”
By Jeff Kurtti
JEFF KURTTI is a leading authority on The Walt Disney Company, its founder, and its history. He is the author of more than twenty books, a writer-director of award-winning documentary content, and a respected public speaker. A Seattle, Washington, native, Kurtti worked as a production coordinator on the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Arts Festival, followed by two years as the assistant to the president of the California Institute of the Arts. For several years, he worked for Walt Disney Imagineering, the theme park design division of The Walt Disney Company, and then for the Corporate Special Projects department of Disney. Since 1995, Kurtti has enjoyed a career as an author, writer, and consultant in the motion picture, theatre, and theme park entertainment industries. He was creative director, content consultant, and media producer for The Walt Disney Family Museum in San Francisco and a producer of The Boys: The Sherman Brothers Story, a critically acclaimed documentary about the famed songwriters.
JEFF’S RECOMMENDED READING
Ready for more? Check out the official Disney on Ice site. Or find some rare surviving story-sketch pages from the Oswald the Lucky Rabbit short Sleigh Bells in David A. Bossert’s Disney Editions book Oswald the Lucky Rabbit: The Search for the Lost Disney Cartoons.